Meet Laura Tahja Johson performing as Ellen Pazinski in Over the Tavern

Lyric Arts had a chance to interview Laura Tahja Johson, who is performing as Ellen Pazinski in Over the Tavern. Read on to hear what she has to say about her experience thus far! LA: Tell us a little bit about why this particular show interested you?

LTJ: I love this sort of “slice of life” play. It’s truly like being a fly on the wall. I will say it over and over again, but I love this script, in particular. It’s smart and sweet and honest, which is an excellent combination, in my mind. I love the relationships between the characters and how they all grow and change over the course of the play.

As a "good Catholic girl," I love the way that the Catholic Church is almost the show’s eighth character. The playwright employs just the right amount of  humor and  irreverence in questioning the Catholic Church and the very notion of religion in a way that never becomes condescending or mean-spirited.

LA: For those who unfamiliar with Over the Tavern can you tell us about the show?

LTJ: Over the Tavern is about the Pazinskis, a Polish-Catholic family living above the bar they own and run. It’s a big family—mom, dad, and four kids aged twelve and up—crowded into a very small apartment. While the story centers on twelve-year-old Rudy and his coming-of-age journey, this is also a play about family—moms, dads, kids, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives.

LA: Talk about the character that you play in Over the Tavern. How have you developed this character?

LTJ: I identify very closely with Ellen Pazinski, so developing the character has been more of a look inward than it has been a creation of someone who is outside myself.

Ellen Pazinski is a hard-working wife and mother of four with a very busy life. Besides taking care of her home, children, and husband, she also works in the bar on occasion. As a mother of six-year-old twins who also works full-time, I can completely relate to that aspect of her life.

What was truly amazing to me is the fact that Ellen is so much like my own mother and so, by extension, also like me in many ways. I really understand where she is coming from. She is what my friends and I used to call a “cream puff”—hard on the outside and squishy in the middle. She’s a strong woman who is tough when she needs to be, but she has an enormous and incredibly tender heart. She loves her husband truly and deeply and is fiercely protective of her children—good Lord, don’t even think about messing with her kids.

I love Ellen’s sense of humor and admire the fact that she is quite progressive for a woman for her time, her upbringing, and her situation. In addition, she is someone who will truly stand up for what she believes in. In fact, she’s kind of a rebel.

LA: Why should people come and see Over the Tavern

LTJ: Why shouldn’t people come to see it? The script is fantastic and the characters are all beautifully written. It is hilarious, heart-warming, and heart-breaking. Even though the show is set in 1959 and has a shimmer of nostalgia, it depicts a real family; they love each other, they have good days and bad days, they yell, they fight, they hug, they kiss, they cry.  In fact, many of their problems are the same problems you would find in any family in modern society and the show deals with them in a very truthful manner. Anyone who has been a parent or a child can relate to this show.

There are moments in Over the Tavern that I still can’t help laughing at, even after hearing them over and over again. In addition, there are moments that give me a lump in my throat every time I watch them.

LA: Talk about your fellow cast members, how do you see their characters developing? Any that you are particularly amazed at?

LTJ: This is truly an ensemble show and I am lucky to be working with an amazing cast of actors. It has been such a treat to watch these very talented children build their characters. Alec (Rudy) is truly the sweet soul of this production and really carries much of the show on his very small shoulders.

Alex (Georgie) has such a difficult role in playing a severely autistic child who mostly communicates in noises and one syllable words. That sort of role would be tough for an adult to pull off and he is doing a fantastic job.

Maia (Annie) and I have a lot of chemistry together on stage as women which will be fun to explore as we come closer to opening night. It has been such a pleasure to watch Noah (who I have known since he was very young) and his character (Eddie) transition from a child to a young man over the course of the rehearsal process.

Valerie is a powerhouse. She has an amazing ability to transform herself into Sister Clarissa. I am wowed by her on a nightly basis.

Justin (Chet) and I have spent a lot of time working together on developing our characters and our relationship as a married couple. It is interesting how much the development of my character goes completely hand-in-hand with his and vice-versa. We came into this process almost completely as strangers and have had to become friends very quickly. Justin has been tremendously supportive as a scene partner, for which I have been very thankful.  Plus, he is one heck of an actor. He brings something new to the table every night and has been an absolute pleasure to work with. I am looking forward to seeing where the mutual development of our characters takes us.

LA: What do you feel are the "wow" elements of Over the Tavern?

LTJ: Again, the script is really amazing. I think audiences will really be wowed by the emotion and truth contained in the story and the separate journeys made by each of the characters. Everyone will be able to relate to someone.

LA: Tell us what is something that you are particular excited about this show coming to together? For example, a certain scene, costumes, set, lights, etc?

LTJ: The set is amazing and Brian [Proball, the set designer] is a genius.  I can’t wait to see what the finished product will look like. My initial costume fitting was so much fun. Shannon [O’Black, the costume designer] pulled some great vintage and vintage looking pieces—I’m really looking forward to seeing how the costumes come together for my character and for the rest of the cast.

LA: Do you have any rituals or things you do to prepare to go on stage when you are performing?

LTJ: For me, getting into costume and make-up is an essential part of my mental preparation. Each piece of clothing, brush of make-up, or curl of hair that I add is another layer of the character that I add to my physical presence in the process of “becoming” the character.

On the other hand, as it has been about 14 years since I was last on stage in this sort of capacity, I don’t really have any rituals anymore. I am, however, looking forward to creating some new ones. I think deep, relaxing breathing will figure heavily into the nightly line-up.

LA: Why do you choose to spend time at Lyric Arts? 

LTJ: Most people can’t wait to get out of the office after a long day at work. Even though I work at Lyric Arts during the day, I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else to audition. It is the most welcoming theater community of which I have had the opportunity to be a part. Lyric Arts is a truly magical place in my mind.

LA: What is your favorite way to spend your free time? As your character in the 1950’s, how would you spend your free time?

LTJ: Much like Ellen, I don’t have a lot of free time. What time I have I spend with my husband and my children. I enjoy reading and love having a good laugh with a friend or two. I wonder if Ellen knits…

LA: What is your dream character to play on stage?

LTJ: That is a difficult question. It has been a long time since I thought of myself as an actor. I would love to play Miss Hannigan in “Annie” or Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” I love broad comedy and character roles. I also love playing “real women” in real situations especially if they tend toward being a little on the tart or brassy side. Ellen Pazinski is the perfect combination of both sides of that coin so, in essence, she is sort of a dream role.

LA: Please tell us a little bit about yourself?

LTJ: I am originally from Duluth but now live in New Hope. I am married to a truly amazing man named Tony, who some of you might know as Father Flynn from our production of Doubt: A Parable or as the Emcee for our annual Cabaret Fundraiser. We are parents to the aforementioned six-year-old twins, Margaret and Eleanor. I have been involved in the performing arts for as long as I can remember as a singer, dancer, and actor, and eventually as a director and choreographer. Even though I spend most of my time at a computer as Lyric Arts’ Managing Director, my heart will always be on the stage.